Greg Taber, whose dedication to Woodward Shakespeare Festival over the years has heated up half a dozen Fresno theater summers, is stepping down as executive producer after he finishes the last production of the season. For that milestone he decided to direct Shakespeare’s brutal and little performed “Titus Andronicus,” with Jay Parks in the title role. I caught up with Taber, known for his commitment to theater that nourishes the intellect, to talk a little about the play, which opens Thursday, Aug. 3.
Q: You mention in your director’s note that most people don’t know anything about “Titus Andronicus.” As you try to generate interest in your production this summer, what’s your 30-second pitch to people about the show?
A: What’s your story of righteous vengeance? What’s the story you’d tell yourself if you were to imagine the worst things that could happen to those you love? What would you do in the throes of that life-shattering madness? “Titus Andronicus” is a classic Elizabethan revenge tragedy made intimately personal by Shakespeare’s genius and the the talent of this cast and crew. If you don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty, this is theater you don’t want to miss.
Q: For those who like a traditional plot synopsis, give us one that’s short and sweet.
A: With a little help from the Royal Shakespeare Company: The brothers Saturninus and Bassianus are in contention for the Roman emperorship.Titus Andronicus, Rome’s most honored general, returns from wars against the Goths with their queen, Tamora, her sons and her lover, Aaron the Moor, as captives. Her eldest son is sacrificed by Titus; she vows revenge. Titus is nominated emperor by his brother, Marcus, one of Rome’s tribunes. Titus declines, nominating Saturninus, who accepts. To seal the bond of friendship, the new emperor, Saturnius, offers to marry Titus’s daughter Lavinia. She, however, is already pledged to Bassianus. Saturninus, by now infatuated with Tamora, makes her empress instead. Manipulated by Aaron, Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, avenge their mother by raping and mutilating Lavinia, and killing Bassianus. Aaron falsely implicates Titus’s son, Lucius, in the murder. In his turn Titus vows revenge and sends Lucius to the Goths to raise an army. Titus achieves his revenge by killing Tamora’s sons and serving them up to her at a banquet. In the aftermath, Saturninus and Titus are both killed.
Q: The play is bloody. Really bloody. Even reading the extended synopsis makes me slightly woozy. (In terms of the original text, there are between one and three rapes, 14 deaths, three severed limbs, two severed heads, one severed tongue, one live burial, one near infanticide and at least one clear act of cannibalism.) You remind us that some audience members at a recent Globe Theatre production fainted because of the violence. As director, you had to decide how graphic the play should be. What was your thought process?
A: Theater should not compete with film/TV in terms of realism. It’s a losing proposition and, finally, cheapens the medium by trying to reduce it to something it isn’t. The Globe production, whatever its successes, was fundamentally un-theatrical and would have better served its audience on a screen rather than in a live setting. The 2006 Royal Shakespeare/Yukio Ninagawa production, with its highly stylized violence and gore was, based on my reading, far more penetrating and compelling, as opposed to simply being ghastly. With our production, I’ve opted for an approach that relies on using light and sound to establish a highly suggestive atmosphere in which the actors can create everything necessary through the clarity, detail, and depth of their work.
Q: You’re known at Woodward Shakespeare for heavily cutting some works to give them a more forceful, modern sensibility. (Your “Macbeth” comes to mind.) Is this the case with “Titus”?
A: The short answer is yes. What I try to do with every production that I direct is to find the best way to create a possibility of experience for the audience that will see it. With the Shakespeare that I have done, that means defining the specific story that I’m telling, paring away everything that doesn’t contribute to that story, and then enhancing that story in any way that I can. Combine that with a fondness for a minimalist aesthetic that requires everything from the music to the lights to the sets, props, and costumes to be just what they need to be with a preference for symbolism over realism, and you tend to find yourself cutting, combining, and rearranging things to one degree or other. “Macbeth,” “Richard III,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet” (the last two with Theatre Ventoux last year) all did this more or less successfully, and “Titus” continues that practice.
Q: Have you ever directed or been involved with “Titus” before? If not, was this on your bucket list?
A: Before studying the production history of the play in preparation for directing it, my only experience was Julie Taymor’s film with Anthony Hopkins as Titus. I don’t think the comedic elements of the film work very well, but it’s one of Hopkins’ finer performances. The production I wish I had seen was from the late 1980s and was directed by Deborah Warner with Brian Cox in the titular role. So, I guess it’s not been a bucket-list production, per se, though I am proud of the fact that it seems to be the only Fresno-area production of the play ever attempted.
What I have realized with “Titus” is that I seem to have a fascination with madness. Macbeth, Richard III, Romeo, Hamlet, and Titus all struggle against some form of madness in its broadest and most life-shattering sense. In that sense, I suppose Titus is just the latest incarnation of something or other that’s running around inside of me. I also see Titus, both the character and the play, as a proto-Lear, and, since I’m planning a re-visit of “King Lear” next year with Theatre Ventoux, maybe there’s even more of a connection to some overall theme in my work. I suppose time will tell.
Q: Talk about Parks in the leading role.
A: The wonderful thing about directing Jay is that he works his roles; he works them hard. His training was at UC Berkeley, he is very serious about his work, and it shows in the depth and nuance of his performance. At the same time, he has been extremely amenable to finding the middle ground between how he sees a character (or even an entire show) and how I see it. I’m fairly flexible myself (always open to whatever will make the show better), and so our conception of the character really just grew out of working things on the rehearsal floor. This is the fifth play I’ve directed Jay in and it’s worked that way every time.
Q: Do you think the play is most dominantly about revenge? Or something else?
A: “Titus” is a classic revenge tragedy. Establish hero. Make bad things happen to hero. Hero wreaks havoc on those who did bad things. Hero dies. The end. The genius of Shakespeare is the depth of possibilities that he affords an actor in terms of finding out what’s underneath all of that well-worn plot. It’s still common to say of Shakespeare that it’s all in the text, but that’s not accurate, at all — it’s all beneath the text. Shakespeare only gives us the words they say, so it’s up to us to make choices about precisely who is saying these words, why they are saying them, and what else they might mean by them.
Edward Albee writes: “Martha (still softly): I said, make me a drink.
George (Moving to the portable bar) Well, I don’t suppose a nightcap’d kill either one of us…”
And while “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a brilliant play, pretty much every George and Martha is pretty much every other George and Martha with the differences being largely a matter of the individual actor’s capacity to perform what Albee has written. The same is true of Miller, O’Neill, Mamet, and most any modern playwright you’d care to name.
Shakespeare writes in “Hamlet”: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” And we get Gielgud, Evans, Olivier, Burton, Warner, Jacobi, Pryce, Branagh, Tenant, Kinnear, Cumberbatch, and Hiddleston. And that’s just a sampling of the male, British, caucasian Hamlets. Then there’s Kline, Hawke, Lester, Bernhardt, Peakes and so many, many more including our own locals, Brooke Aiello and Broderic Beard. And every one of those Hamlets was fundamentally different. Same words. Same story. Different character. Different show.
So, is Titus about revenge? You bet it is. In all of its vicious and bloody glory, but because it’s Shakespeare, and because we can, and far more importantly because of the courage of these actors in doing the harder work of making their own choices, it’s about the profound and terrible impact of these horrific events on their lives.
Q: Tell us about your decision to step down.
A: In six years as executive producer, I’ve very willingly invested a tremendous amount of time and energy into WSF. That is, of course, time and energy that hasn’t been available for other things. I’ve decided it’s time to make it available for such things. Evenings home. Embarrassing myself in karate class. Sharks games. Giants games (OK, maybe not so much lately.) Weekends home. Acting in plays for anyone who might cast me. A Theatre Ventoux production here and there. Seeing what I can do to assist R.S. Scott and the Fresno Soap Co. in the work that they’re doing. Finally watching the last three episodes of “American Gods,” season four of “Sherlock,” and re-watching “Taboo,” along with about a hundred other things. Hanging out with the family. Books. It’s just time to move on.
The new board/executive team and I don’t exactly see eye to eye on things and so it’s time to pass it on. I’ve done a bunch of shows, learned a lot, made some improvements, made some mistakes, learned more, had some successes, had some failures, learned even more, worked with some absolutely amazing people and more than a handful of donkeys. It’s been life: good, bad, neat, messy, all of that. But I’m done with it. Time to move on.
As far as I know, they plan to keep doing shows. They’re putting together a new board and executive team and making plans for next season. Beyond that, you’d really have to speak to whomever is taking over my job.
Q: I feel I need to reiterate the point that even when it’s really hot in Fresno, by evening at the festival stage it’s cooled down. Can you elaborate?
A: It was something like 106 the other day. At 8 that same evening, out at the WSF stage, it was about 10 degrees cooler, there was a wonderful little breeze wafting around, and the most beautiful sunset in all of Fresno was happening right before my eyes. You can’t get that sitting inside. WSF is Shakespeare in the park. No one else in Fresno is doing what we’re doing and we’re doing it as our gift to Fresno. So maybe it’s a not a cool 76 degrees. It’s mighty comfortable and there’s nothing like it from LA to the Bay Area.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: In the past six years I’ve produced, directed and/or acted in 23 plays. All of them had something wonderful about them, usually a performance here or there. A few of them were just OK. Most were good, solid community theatre productions. A small handful came together just right and were astonishing pieces of theater. None of them would have been possible or worthwhile without my family: Kayla, Broderic, Sharon, Megan, Joshua, and, most of all, Lisa. VLB.
“Titus Andronicus” opens 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 3, Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage, Woodward Park. Continues 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Aug. 26. General admission is free; $10 reserved tickets in the first two rows are available online. $5 per car park entry fee applies.
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